THE ANCIENT LAW (DAS ALTES GESETZ)
The First World War and its aftermath saw an increase in the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to the cities of the West, fleeing the chaos caused by the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mostly Orthodox Jews with distinctive dress, beliefs, and customs, they became a visible foreign presence on the streets of Western Europe. As a result, half a dozen feature films made between 1919 and 1924 in Germany and Austria focused on the plight of the Jews in postwar Europe -- the tensions between tradition and modernity, the problem of rising anti-Semitism, and the issue of social assimilation and interfaith marriage. The most well-known of these movies is DER GOLEM (1919); a more obscure film by a famous director (Carl Th. Dreyer) in this vein is LOVE ONE ANOTHER (1922). Another one of these movies, THE ANCIENT LAW, reenacts an earlier migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the capital of the Austrian Empire in the 1860’s, through the journey of Baruch Mayer, an Orthodox Jew and aspiring actor, from a shtetl in Galicia to the stage of Vienna’s preeminent theater the Burgtheater.
In the film, Baruch (Ernst Deutsch), the son of a rabbi, becomes fascinated by the theater. Against his father’s wishes, Baruch leaves home and finds his way to Vienna, where an archduchess at the imperial court (Henny Porten) falls in love with him. She becomes his patroness, facilitating his successful career as a classical actor. But Baruch continues to long for home, and must find a way to reconcile his religious heritage with his love of secular literature. The movie paints a complex portrait of the tension between tradition and modernity. THE ANCIENT LAW (1923) seeks to defuse mutual anxieties around ethnic difference or Jewish minority and dominant Gentile elites in postwar Weimar Germany, by offering a conciliatory Enlightenment model set in mid-nineteenth-century Vienna that allows both groups to maintain their integrity. THE ANCIENT LAW is considered to be a kind of precursor to THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), made only four years later but a world apart in Hollywood.
THE ANCIENT LAW was directed by E.A. Dupont (VARIETY, 1925), with cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl (THE LOVES OF PHARAOH, 1922). The film stars Henny Porten (the Mary Pickford of German cinema) and Ernst Deutsch (who much later played Baron Kurtz in THE THIRD MAN). Critic Jay Weissberg has written that “with THE ANCIENT LAW, Dupont’s attention to pictorial beauty as well as his facility with actors garnered accolades that made him one of the most highly praised European filmmakers until his ill-fated career in the sound era. The film has numerous striking moments worth singling out: the emotionally rich vignette of Baruch dreamily clutching Ahasuerus’ crown as he imagines a life in the theater; the potent long shot of Ruben Pick leaving the shtetl, his solitary figure enveloped by dust rolling in across the fields; the painterly beauty when the archduchess, realizing Baruch’s ambition is greater than his attachment to her, opens her sitting room window and basks in the sunlight.”
THE ANCIENT LAW (DAS ALTE GESETZ), has been digitally restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek, and with generous support from the Sunrise Foundation for Education and the Arts. After first reconstructing the film in 1984, the Deutsche Kinemathek found the censor's certificate with the text of the original title cards. This provided the impetus for a worldwide search for all the surviving film elements and a new, digital restoration - which drew upon nitrate prints in five different languages held in archives across Europe and the United States. This deluxe Blu-ray/DVD dual-edition collector's set features two scores: an ensemble score by Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals, and a second orchestral score by French composer Philippe Schoeller.
Bonus features include an excerpt from a 1923 documentary on film production in Weimar Germany, a short film on the restoration process, and an image slideshow of rare production materials and stills.
THE ANCIENT LAW (DAS ALTES GESETZ)
Director: E.A. Dupont
Screenplay: Paul Reno
Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Set Design: Alfred Junge, Kurt Kahle
- 135 minutes
- B&W and color (tinted)
DER FILM IM FILM (Germany, 1923)
- 17 minutes
The only surviving excerpt of a documentary on film production in Germany, featuring the different personalities of several favorite directors of the era at work on set, including Fritz Lang, Robert Weine and Dupont.
INSIGHTS INTO THE RESTORATION (EINBLICKE IN DIE RESTAURIERUNG) (Germany, 1923)
- 17 minutes
- B&W and color A comparison of the different nitrate elements used in the restoration.
Rare production stills and original archival material.
Total Running Time: 02:49:00
Language: German with English, French and Russian subtitles
Musical Score: Philippe Schoeller; Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals
Booklet Text: Cynthia Walk and Daniel Meiller (18 pages, in English)
Published By: Flicker Alley
Institutional Price: $300 (plus shipping).
To order call: 212.280.8654 or click here for information on ordering by fax, e-mail or post.